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FCC Explores Adding 3G Spectrum Below 3 GHz

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Thursday will hold an open meeting in an attempt to sort out the prickly issue of using frequency bands below 3 GHz to support the introduction of Advanced Wireless services, including 3G services, in the U.S.

3G systems are intended to provide access, by means of one or more radio links, to a wide range of telecommunication services supported by the fixed telecommunication networks and to other services that are specific to mobile users. A range of mobile terminal types will be used, linking to terrestrial and/or satellite-based networks, and the terminals may be designed for mobile or fixed use.

Key features of 3G systems are a high degree of commonality of design worldwide, compatibility of services, use of small pocket terminals with worldwide roaming capability, Internet and other multimedia applications, and a wide range of services and terminals.

And there is no small amount of money concerned. The FCC has said that capital investment in the wireless mobile industry has more than quadrupled since 1994, for a cumulative total of more than $70 billion through 1999. Additionally, the number of subscribers for wireless services has more than doubled since 1996 to more than 86 million subscribers through 1999 and revenues over the same period doubled to almost $21 billion while rates fell. The wireless carriers have taken a hit during the current economic slowdown, but the consensus is that the industry will continue to scale up rapidly.

But as demand for services grows, more spectrum is needed to fulfill that demand, which means the FCC must make some difficult decisions.

The issue is complicated by a number of factors, including:

  • A mandate by Congress that 200 MHz of spectrum be reallocated for advanced mobile and fixed communication services in the next thee to five years
  • A resolution by the 2000 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-2000) that an additional 160 MHz of spectrum will be needed by 2010 to meet the projected requirements for those areas where the traffic on these services is highest
  • The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) plan for fostering the development of advanced wireless systems, commonly known as the International Mobile Telecommunications 2000 (IMT-2000) initiative, which defines key characteristics of IMT-2000 radio systems, including standards intended to minimize the number of different radio interfaces, maximize their commonality and provide a transition path to 3G systems.

The ITU and WRC-2000 have identified a number of frequency bands that could be used to implement 3G systems while satisfying its standards. The recommendations include 806-890 MHz, 1710-1885 MHz, and 2500-2690 MHz for possible terrestrial use. The two groups identified bands in the 1885-2170 MHz range for high-altitude platform IMT-2000 use and also identified the 1525-1559, 1610-1660.5, 2483.5-2500, 2500-2520, and 2670-2690 MHz bands for mobile satellite IMT-2000 use.

Some of those frequencies are already used for commercial mobile communications -- namely 825-845/870-890 MHz bands for cellular radio service, 806-821/851-866 MHz and 896-901/935-940 MHz bands for Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR) services, and 1850-1910/1930-1990 MHz bands for Personal Communication Service (PCS) -- and the FCC has proposed allowing those frequencies to be used for 3G as well.

However, other suggested bands -- especially the 2500-2690 MHz band -- are already in use by differing services, and according to a study prepared in March by FCC staff in the Office of Engineering and Technology, Mass Media Bureau, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, and International Bureau, sharing the band between 3G and incumbent services could cause extensive interference.

The 2500-2690 MHz band is currently used by the Instructional Fixed Television Service (ITFS), Multipoint Distribution Service (MDS) and Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service (MMDS). The MDS industry in particular has invested several billion dollars to develop broadband fixed wireless data systems in the band, including high-speed access to the Internet. According to the study, the MDS systems offer a "significant opportunity for further competition with cable and digital subscriber line (DSL) services in the provision of broadband services in urban and rural areas."

Additionally, the spectrum is used to provide video services for education and training in schools, health care centers and a variety of other institutions, as well as provisioning wireless cable. Although some argue the spectrum is underutilized, the study said it is heavily licensed throughout the country. And, the study also found that ITFS and MDS use of the band varies from one geographic area to the other, presenting "serious challenges to developing band sharing or segmentation options that could be used across the country without severely disrupting ITFS and MDS use."

Indeed, one study cited by the FCC's report suggested that segmentation of the band or relocation of ITFS/MDS could cost those operations as much as $19 billion over a 10-year period. Relocation would also require other services to relocate with costs estimated to range from $10.2 billion to $30.4 billion.

The other bands may prove to be more workable. The 1710-1755 MHz band, which falls within the recommended 1710-1885 MHz band, was identified for transfer from the federal government to mixed use in 1995. An interim report completed by the FCC on Nov. 15, 2000, suggested that band could be paired with the 2110-2150/2160-2165 MHz bands, identified for reallocation by the commission under its Emerging Technologies proceeding.

The FCC's open meeting will be held Thursday at 9:30 a.m. in Room TW-C305, at 445 12th Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. The FCC said the meeting can be viewed over George Mason University's Capitol Connection, which will also carry the meeting live via the Internet. The audio portion of the meeting will be broadcast live on the Internet via the FCC's Internet audio broadcast page. Additionally, the meeting can be heard via telephone, for a fee, from National Narrowcast Network at 202-966-2211.